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April 17, 2016, 11:31 AM

Sheepishly


Psalm 23
 
Revelation 7:9-17
 
John 10:22-30
 
Sheepishly
 
Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday! The fourth Sunday in the Great 50 Days of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday with most readings featuring metaphors of sheep and shepherds. This year, year C in the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches, we are blessed with three scriptures featuring sheep/shepherd imagery. First we are gifted with the beloved psalm, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters…” The Book of Revelation depicts John of Patmos’ vision of the multitude of martyrs from all nations, races, and languages gathered before the throne of God, worshiping day and night. The vision is clear that in the center of that throne, that center of worship, is the Lamb—the Lamb who is our Shepherd. And every Good Shepherd Sunday features the gospel of John, chapter 10, the Good Shepherd chapter. This year we are further along in the beautiful chapter, where Jesus speaks of his followers as his sheep, who hear their shepherd’s voice, belong to their shepherd, and follow there shepherd—Jesus.
 
So what in the world do we, 21st century Americans in Upper New York, do with these 1st century Middle Eastern images of sheep and shepherd? Let’s face it, Upper NY has fewer and fewer farms every year. What farms we do have tend to be dairy farms, or beef farms, or vegetable farms—growing corn or soy beans. We have more chickens and pigs and goats than we have sheep. And, what images come to mind when we think of sheep? How do we speak of sheep in our culture? (sheepish—shy, hesitant; smelly; blind followers; dumb) And we know that using metaphors is tricky. We don’t want to take a metaphor too far. They are intended to invoke an initial thought or image or feeling, as the conversation or teaching builds.  So on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes exploring sheep and shepherds.
 
Let’s begin with the beginning of a sheep’s life—let’s look at lambs. I was blest in my life to have two significant people who were shepherds. The first was my Uncle Ronald. My grandfather’s sister, Mary Lou, was my caregiver in my early years while my mom and dad were working. She was a second mother to me, and her husband, Ronald, had a large sheep farm. I rarely visited his flocks, but I remember as if it were yesterday, Ronald coming to my family’s farm and bringing a newborn lamb. Each spring there were always a few lambs who could not flourish with their mothers, for various reasons. Ronald would bring one of those newborns to me (and my family) and let us bottle feed it and raise it until it was ready to return to the flock. I remember Ronald placing the trembling, frightened newborn lamb in my six-year-old arms, and  it was no bigger than my baby doll, with its scrawny legs all tucked in under its body. I remember begin struck with how tiny the little lamb was, how vulnerable, how fragile. I remember its first attempts to walk about on its tiny, toothpick legs; wobbly and unsteady. I remember the lambs devotion and affection, it’s desire to climb into my lap every time I sat down.
 
That is the image being invoked as John seeks to describe his vision of the heavenly throne room. The center of the image is the awe-inspiring throne of God, multi-colored and radiant. It is surrounded by this mysterious and terrifying living creatures, with many eyes and wings. The elders of the people of God, the multitude of martyrs in white, all surround and worship the One on the throne of heaven. And that One is…the Lamb—tiny, fragile, vulnerable, the epitome of weakness. The Lamb is our Shepherd, our Center, our Lord. We do not see the way the world sees. We do not live the way the world lives. We do not value what the world values. We turn our eyes upon the throne of God and behold the Lamb of God—perfect in weakness, embodying another way of living. “Glory and Power and Might and Authority to the Lamb!”
 
Though Revelation deals with the image of the Lamb for Jesus Christ, our other scriptures focus more on sheep, especially flocks of sheep. In my young adult life I became friends with Kathleen England and her husband, Robby. Kathleen is a shepherd, with a large flock of beautiful sheep. Many times I would go out to her farm to help her with the upkeep and care of her flock and pastures. When she was away for whatever reason, I would often stay on her farm and take care of the sheep in her absence. I loved to watch them from her deck and here are some things I would notice. Sheep are made for community. They are designed to be together. It is in their DNA. Sheep are made to flock. Within this community, this flock, smaller groups would form from time to time.  Older lambs formed what I liked to call the motorcycle gang. They would run and jump and kick and play as one large gang, moving around and around the larger flock, swarming here and there. Young mothers with nursing young would graze near the matriarchs of the herd, seeming to take comfort from those with experience.
 
The sheep would do a little shepherding of one another. When that motorcycle gang moved to far afield for comfort, one of the eldest sheep would call them back. The sheep would call back and forth to one another in the flock, clearly communicating with one another. They were smart, especially those elders, crafty in their problem solving. As John and Psalm 23 invoke the image of God’s people as sheep, they are referring to this people in community—it is part of our design as followers of Jesus to be in community. We are together for nurture and support, for comfort and protection, to hold one another accountable. We travel the Way of Jesus together, as a community. It is in our spiritual DNA.
 
But a flock, a community of sheep, is most secure and healthy when it is under the care of a shepherd. The shepherd is the caretaker and guide, the leader and protector. But more than anything else, the shepherd is beloved of the flock. When I took care of Kathleen’s sheep, they ignored me at best, and skittered away when feeling nervous. The only time they really took note of me is when I brought grain for their supper. And then I only had their attention for as long as it took me to pour out the grain. But when Kathleen came home… She would walk just inside the pasture and call out to her flock, “hellooooo.” As one they would spring to attention, all heads turning toward the sound of her voice. And then they would spring forward, sprinting toward her location, even the oldest among them jumping and bucking like a little lamb. And they would make this ‘blat’ sound—not the baaaas they would call to one another in the flock. It was this short sound of joy. They were overjoyed to see her, their fountain of life. They would encircle her, wiggling all over, bouncing and blatting. Their shepherd was here!
 
And when we were all working in the pasture, shoring up fence posts, securing barbed wire, making the pasture secure, one glance would tell you exactly where Kathleen was working, for where she went within the pasture, there was the flock, gathered around her. It was abundantly clear who the shepherd was.
 
That is what we do with sheep and shepherd imagery in the 21st century, we seek to understand and we live into it.  We are those who worship the Lamb! We look to the throne of God and glory in the vulnerable, fragile, tiny Lamb in the center of the throne and we commit to living as those who follow another way, a way vastly different than the world’s way. We embrace the truth that we are made for community. It is in our DNA. We come together as that beloved community and journey together on the Way of Jesus. And in all that we do, all that we say, day in and day out, the world knows with certainty who our shepherd is, for it shines through us to touch the world. We embody in our lives together the prayer we lift up at the beginning of our message time each week. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing and acceptable in the sight of our Shepherd, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

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